We make the decision to climb up to Montchavin after dinner. The path is dark; it runs straight up through the trees, a narrow passage carving its way through the night. The ground is difficult going, rocky, uneven but in the winter it will be covered with snow making it flat and even. This is ski territory, with purpose built villages perched on the mountains likes the houses of dolls which, in the snow, look like they belong here, but in the summer, in this 30 degree heat, fool us with their veneers as though – like a cutout saloon in a Western they would fall down around at the slightest breath. These Alpine houses are built in layers of wood over concrete, heart-shaped holes and balconies of bold geraniums and bougainvillea vivid in their bright dresses adding to the effect of kitsch and make-believe, but I love them all the same. I am happy to be duped. In the winter these narrow streets will become blankets of snow and icicles will hang from window sills like bitter teardrops. We take comfort where we can.
At the top of the path we emerge on to cobbled, carless streets, bustling and inviting. We pass a window of stuffed animals – foxes, marmosets, partridges, a wild boar and in the corner, watching them all with teeth bared, a wolf. No one else stops to look at them but I feel, for a moment, afraid of these wild things. At the end of the 1800’s there were between ten and twenty thousand wolves in France, wiped out altogether by the end of the 1930’s but now I’ve read that there are around 300 wolves back in France. There was a confirmed sighting of a wolf in the Alpes Maritime very recently, so I can feel them, watching us as we walk, tracking our tread with steady steps tripping leaves and branches, twigs and air. It is said, where the butterflies are, there the wolves will be, the pretty creatures feasting on shit to stay alive and in the daytime I notice the butterflies follow us, tiny blue souls trapped in cages of cloud. Butterflies are said to be the souls of the dead but they are here, out in daylight where the living are and I feel them protecting us.
At night you can’t see the mountains, but you can hear them. Their shadows dart in and out of the dots and collections of lights pockmarking the slopes. In the daytime even in summer, the mountains are a jagged ridge, covered in cloud banks, the snow-fringed slope of Mont Blanc teasing you with winter promise as you descend the roads – now here, now there, now gone but tonight the only wolves we see are in the sky. The yellow eye of the wolf is in Lupus, the constellation that is friends with Scorpius, Normus, Circinus, Centaurus and Libra. And somewhere, over there – the mountains of Italy….from where the wolves came to France, slipping in unnoticed under the cover of night, of this collection of stars, to bring a balance to the bite, a measured existence.
Of course we have to walk back through the darkness which in this part of the world is never quite as dark as it should be at this summer time of year. We hold the torches of our mobile phones to guide us, candle-like and then we hear them… the wolves. Or am I the only one? They are far away but with each howl they seem to come nearer even though they must be miles, hundreds of them, away from us. They sound so close they could be whispering in our ears. If one should come out of the forest now, what would we do?
‘At night, the eyes of wolves shine like candle flames’ Angela Carter wrote in ‘The Company of Wolves’ and if perchance the unwitting traveller should spy those eyes watching from the undergrowth ‘then he knows he must run’ she says. We stop for a moment and the others think they hear something too, a dog barking? ‘They will be like shadows, they will be like wraiths’ Carter wrote and this is what it feels like as we stumble, moving more quickly down the mountain and laugh for fear of the things we cannot see. When we reach the house and warmth and light, the sounds all but vanish into the night. The wolves are on the outside and we are safe. For now.
I take up my pen thinking: this is where stories begin…